• May 6, 2021

Advocates Urge Court to Reverse Conviction in Commonwealth v. Carter Decrying Race and Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Jury Selection

Friend of the Court brief filed at Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by several racial justice and LGBTQ advocacy groups argues exclusion of jurors based on race and being LGBTQ violated jurors’ rights and denied defendant a fair trial.

May 6, 2021 (BOSTON, MA) — Tomorrow the Supreme Judicial Court will hear a case with significant implications for how courts must approach discrimination in jury selection. Black and Pink MA, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court supporting defendant-appellant Antwan Carter’s call for reversal of a 2010 murder conviction on the basis of improper discrimination in jury selection at his trial. The brief asserts that the trial court erred by failing to examine the prosecution’s peremptory strikes – exclusion of prospective jurors without reason – of four Black jurors and two jurors perceived to be LGBTQ, denying Carter access to an impartial jury of his peers and subjecting those individual jurors to impermissible discrimination.

The amici organizations argue that peremptory jury strikes based on the presumed sexual orientation of the juror are prohibited under both the Massachusetts and Federal constitutions and that the trial court improperly relied on the inclusion of previously seated Black jurors to justify not examining the prosecution’s strikes of four other Black jurors. Oral argument in the case, Commonwealth v. Antwan Carter, is scheduled for May 7.

“The criminal legal system has been failing black and queer people since its inception. Jury discrimination is one of several ways that the deck can be stacked against the accused.” said Michael Cox, executive director at Black and Pink Massachusetts. “We believe that’s what happened here, but we’ll never know because the trial judge failed to take the required steps.”

“A fundamental premise of our justice system is that defendants in criminal cases have a right to a fair trial,” said Chris Erchull, Staff Attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. “Trial courts too often overlook instances of discrimination in jury selection, depriving defendants of a jury of their peers. When the court refused to question the prosecution’s strike of Black and LGBTQ jurors, Antwan Carter was denied a fair trial.”

“Permitting discrimination in jury service against members of any historically marginalized group is contrary to the very idea of equal citizenship and repugnant to the State’s responsibility to ensure defendants access to a fair trial,” said Mary Bonauto, GLAD Civil Rights Project Director. “We hope the Supreme Judicial Court will re-affirm that racial and LGBTQ-status discrimination has no place in jury service or selection.”

“This case bears a troubling record of disinterest in ensuring a jury selection process untainted by discrimination—denying the rights of full citizenship to Black jurors and jurors perceived to be LGBTQ based on their identities and denying the defendant’s right to a jury of his peers. Charles Hamilton Houston once said that ‘all our struggles must tie in together,’ and our coalition here illustrates a vital intersectional approach,” said Katy Naples-Mitchell, Staff Attorney at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “The Supreme Judicial Court has an opportunity to build on its significant record of helping trial courts weed out discrimination from the Commonwealth’s courtrooms.”

“Preventing Black and LGBTQ people from serving on juries violates their rights and the rights of a defendant to a fair trial by a jury of their peers. It also undermines the public confidence in the justice system, reflecting the long history of juror exclusion in this country. We hope the Court takes this opportunity to say that this discriminatory practice cannot continue. Black and LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment in the courtroom, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system,” said Ethan Rice, Senior Attorney of Fair Courts Project at Lambda Legal.

The mission of Black and Pink Massachusetts is to abolish the prison industrial complex and liberate LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS who are affected by that system through advocacy, support, and organizing.

Through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation. www.glad.org

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School was launched in 2005 by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law. The Institute honors and continues the unfinished work of Charles Hamilton Houston: to ensure that every member of our society enjoys equal access to the opportunities, responsibilities, and privileges of membership in the United States, through a community justice model.

Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.